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Stars Work, Play Hard in Spalding D-League All-Star Game

Blue All-Stars Top Red, 117-99; Jeremy Richardson Takes M.V.P. Honors

By Matt Wurst,

All-Star M.V.P. Jeremy Richardson, who finished with a game-high 22 points, has already been called up twice this season.
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS, February 16, 2008 -- They may be All-Stars, but this was not your typical All-Star Game. In fact, while the second annual D-League All-Star Game presented by Spalding featured the Red and Blue teams, some of the players may be going home somewhat black and blue.

For the 19 NBA Development League players selected to compete in the game, the game meant more than just a free trip to New Orleans. It was another chance for these NBA hopefuls to showcase their skills and audition for a job with an NBA team. There were NBA coaches, players and scouts in attendance and each participant knew that the stakes to this game were a bit higher. Among those here watching were Portland Trail Blazers General Manager Kevin Pritchard, Nuggets Vice President of Basketball Operations Mark Warkentien and Dell Demps, the Director of Player Personnel for the San Antonio Spurs.

After trailing late in the first quarter, the D-League Blue All-Stars rallied to tie the game in the second quarter and never looked back. Both teams played hard, ran all night, defended well to the end and put on a show for the fans. We saw tandems of teammates working together to score, fancy passing and plenty of highlight dunks. But behind All-Star M.V.P. and Fort Wayne Mad Ants guard Jeremy Richardson's22 points, Blue had Red singing the blues in this, the city of jazz, winning handily by a score of 117-99.

"My goal in coming here was to prove I deserve another shot in the NBA," Richardson said. "I also just wanted to have a lot of fun with it."

Even though fans had a say in picking the All-Stars, the actual starting lineups were picked by the coaches, Idaho's Brian Gates of the Red Team and L.A.'s Dan Panaggio for the Blue. The teams were divided into Red and Blue since there are currently three divisions in the D-League. Starting for Red was Skyforce forward Kasib Powell, Iowa's Dwayne Mitchell as well as the Stampede tandem of Cory Violette, Lance Allred, and Randy Livingston. Blue starters were L.A.'s Sean Banks and Jelani McCoy, Austin's Keith Langford and Ian Mahinmi, as well as Jeremy Richardson. NBA legends Rick Barry (Red) and Lenny Wilkens (Blue) served as honorary captains on each side.

"We wanted to have teammates play together," Panaggio said. "We knew that would help things a bit. Of course, the goal in these games is always to get everyone an equal opportunity to play because they've all earned the right to be here."

Indeed, this game is a unique reward and special treat for the best players in the D-League. But while this is about entertaining the fans and enjoying the weekend, every single one of these players is here to prove something. Every chance to play is another opportunity to showcase skills and make a case for their futures.

"You want everyone in the game to have fun, that's for sure," Panaggio said. "We didn't really get the chance to practice so we wanted to keep everything as simple as possible and let the players figure it out for themselves. I think the key is playing good defense and working hard on that end. That leads to them being able to get out and run a bit, which lets these guys showcase what they can do. When everyone scores more points, everyone looks better."

The game featured three NBA-assigned players participating, two from the same team. That means Flash teammates Morris Almond and Kyrylo Fesenko are among the few D-League All-Stars not trying to get noticed by an NBA team as they are already members of the Utah Jazz. The Colorado 14ers and Stampede were well represented with four and three players participating from each team, respectively.

"I don't think any of us had touched a ball in a couple of days, so knowing we have a teammate or two on the floor with us out there helped a lot," McCoy said. "We know each other's games and everything meshed well."

Hoorah For The Red and the Blue

The first half was a tale of two very different quarters. The opening 12 minutes saw scoring in droves, high-percentage shots and one fast break after another. Blue's Ian Mahinmi finished a crowd-pleasing alley-oop dunk from Sean Banks to open the scoring, then Banks flushed home a dunk of his own on the next possession. But Red did not back down as the starting Stampede teammates worked together to tie the score and take the lead.

Considering the Stampede had won 18 straight games before a pair of losses headed into the All-Star break, it is no surprise that Coach Gates playing his three All-Stars together at the outset. Lance Allred had 10 points in the first quarter while Red's Kasib Powell picked up the scoring duties from there and finished the first quarter with nine points of his own. Jeremy Richardson was hot early for Blue, tallying six points in the first four minutes. Teammate Rod Benson also showed off a versatily game in winning a fight for a loose rebound, gathering the ball and sending a behind-the-back pass to an open Kyrylo Fesenko underneath for a powerful one-handed dunk. After one, Red had established a small lead, 30-24, but had set a blistering pace.

D-Fenders center Jelani McCoy credits his team's defensive effort for the Blue victory.
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images
As the second quarter got started, the competitive fires kicked into another gear and the defensive focus that both coaches preached before the game began to take root. Scoring and shooting percentages dropped, the battle for loose balls got a bit more physical and the number of fouls began to climb. That was just the kind of change that Colorado's Elton Brown lives for. Inserted into the lineup for the first time in the second quarter, Brown hit the boards and started scoring for Red.

But the Blue team fought to regain the lead as the first half wound down thanks to the inside-outside play of its second team. With the starters on the bench, a pair of duos - Utah teammates Fesenko and Almond and Dakota teammates Rod Benson and Carlos Powell - and Bakersfield's Andre Barrett running the point started to open things up again. Blue rode that momentum, outscoring Red by 16 points in the second quarter and took a lead into the lockerroom at halftime, 53-43.

"We were just feeling things out in the beginning and didn't know what to expect with a bunch of players who had never played together before," Almond said. "But we figured things out in the second quarter and focused on shutting down Elton Brown and went from there."

Out of the break, the Red All-Star's first team immediately began chipping away at the double-digit lead and had it down to two points in under the first two minutes of the third quarter. Kasib Powell, Iowa's Dwayne Mitchell and Lance Allred all did their part. But Blue was able to weather the storm and inflict some danage of its own thanks to some deep shooting from Richardson and the D-Fenders inside tandem of McCoy and Banks. The lead was back up to 11 after another two minutes had ticked off the clock. Once again, Blue's second team of Flash, Wizards and Andre Barrett extended the lead to 20-plus points and put the game away as the third quarter came to a close.

"No one thinks you have to play defense in an All-Star Game, but Coach Wilkens told us to go out there and play defense and that would get us out to a big lead," McCoy said. "You cannot ignore a coach of that caliber and experience. He ended up getting it right on and that's how we won the game."

Both teams opened up the offense a bit more in the fourth quarter with the result no longer in doubt. Richardson cemented his M.V.P. performance by outrunning the Blue defenders and knocking down shots from all over the floor. Richardson (25.3 ppg so far this season) and Flash guard Morris Almond (25.9 ppg) showed why they are the two leading scorers in the D-League this season. The Mad Ants guard has already been a GATORADE call-up twice this season and may very will be a call-up again in the near future after today's big effort on a big stage.

The All-Star Experience

Every player here is enjoying this unique All-Star experience. Aside from getting to compete for a national audience on NBA TV and another chance to impress NBA scouts, there were some others perks to being a D-League All-Star. From the lavish pre-game lockerroom spread of food and the custom-made shooting shirts to the sweet passing, alley-oops and creative dunking, this game had some of that All-Star feel to it and was a bit of a departure from your regular season D-League game.

"The festivities around us can be influential and you have to be careful to not get distracted and take it easy," Almond said. "We want to be able to freestyle out there and have some fun, but at the same time, we're still competing. You never know who is watching or what they'll notice out of a player on this court that will get them that break."

There was also the proximity to greatness as the D-League All-Star lockerrooms were immediately adjacent to the NBA All-Star East and West lockerrooms. The NBA stars, who had practiced at Center Court in Jam Session just before the start of the D-League contest on the very same court, stopped by to mingle and interact with many of the D-Leaguers. Some are old friends and former teammates. Kobe Bryant gave big hug to Jelani McCoy, Tim Duncan stopped to chat with Austin's Ian Mahinmi and Keith Langford and Carlos Boozer checked on his Jazz teammates.

More than a dozen D-Leaguers, most of whom were All-Stars, participated in the first-ever D-League Dream Factory Friday night and every single one of the All-Star players and coaches not taking part were sitting courtside to watch and cheer on their teammates and friends. Several of the early-ariving D-Leaguers even had the opportunity to take part in NBA All-Star Day of Service on Friday afternoon alongside the NBA All-Stars and 2,500 other volunteers. The players got to participate in a number of NBA All-Star events, including autograph-signings and clinics at Jam Session and many of the parties. They also get tickets to the other events like All-Star Saturday Night and the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday.

"This has been great, but it's not over just yet," Almond said.

But it will be back to work as early as tomorrow evening as the All-Stars return to their teams and tip off the second half of the D-League season. As far as the next step for each of these stars individually, the next chapter will ultimately be written in the coming days as the NBA scouts report back on what they saw and decide who will be the next GATORADE call-up. In the meantime, even if only for a weekend, these D-Leaguers got to feel like stars and enjoy the glitz and glamour of All-Star Weekend.

"It's back to business tomorrow," Richardson said. "We have to get out to California early in the morning for a game."